Fidelio

Ludwig van Beethoven, libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner (narration by David Pountney)
Opera North
The Lowry, Salford

Rachel Nicholls as Leonore, and Brindley Sherratt as Rocco in Fidelio Credit: Richard H Smith
Rachel Nicholls as Leonore Credit: Richard H Smith
Matthew Stiff as Narrator/Don Fernando in Fidelio Credit: Richard H Smith

Opera North staged the last mainstream show I attended prior to lockdown, so it is appropriate theirs should be the one to visit as restrictions begin to ease. There have been, inevitably, changes. The Lowry has a stripped-back, empty feel with no tables, chairs, promotional leaflets or printed programmes. Audience numbers are restricted and masks compulsory. One might imagine this would kill the mood stone dead; yet the atmosphere is respectful—anyone enduring the limitations wants to be present and attentive.

The most obvious change is that Fidelio is an orchestral reduction by Francis Griffin rather than a full theatrical staging. This is not, however, daunting as the company has experience with such an approach having staged, amongst others, Wagner’s Ring cycle and Puccini’s Turandot in concert format. To remove the risk of the audience socialising, there is no interval. The opera is kept to a manageable length of an hour and fifty minutes by the libretto being trimmed and David Pountney’s narration used to move the plot along. To be honest, I’ve found the full version of Fidelio to be heavy going while the leaner staging is a pleasure from start to finish.

Jaquino (Oliver Johnston), a gaoler in a state prison, is in love with Marzelline (Fflur Wyn), the daughter of the chief warder Rocco (Brindley Sherratt). Marzelline is, however, in love with a new warder, Fidelio, which is unfortunate as he is actually Leonore (Rachel Nicholls)—the disguised wife of imprisoned political activist Florestan (Toby Spence)—and is trying to free her husband from the prison.

The central plot device—a woman dressing as a man—could have been lifted out of a farce, but Fidelio is a dark opera with themes of political oppression, the misuse of power and the brutalisation of prisoners. A stark, minimalist approach is taken with the orchestra and principals dressed in simple dark clothing and Toby Spence’s prisoner Florestan barefoot.

The themes of the opera remain depressingly topical. The recent arrest of the dissident Belarus journalist Roman Protasevich demonstrates political oppression never goes out of style. There is, however, also a hint of optimism—a sense of the worst being over. As lockdown measures are dragging on and on, it helps to be reminded it is darkest before the dawn. In a neat ‘we’re all in this together’ touch, the conductor and principals enter wearing hygiene masks branded with the company name.

The cast are not limited by the orchestral setting. Rather than simply projecting towards the audience, they converse between themselves and convey the nature of their characters with subtlety. Jaquino is so anxious, Oliver Johnston can hardly keep still, perched twitching on the edge of his seat. Fflur Wyn’s Marzelline is heartbreakingly innocent in her expression of love, while the slight figure of Rachel Nicholls seems to be carrying the weight of the world, fully aware of the difficulty of her task and determined to do whatever it takes.

Beethoven’s music beautifully conveys the shift from darkness towards light. At times oppressive and foreboding, the score becomes light and tripping, even moving towards an expression of ecstasy.

With a theme of moving from oppression towards freedom and a brisk pace, Opera North’s Fidelio is fine way of celebrating the much anticipated lifting of restrictions. All we need now is to get the restrictions actually lifted and back to fully operational theatres.

Reviewer: David Cunningham